Manchester United sack David Moyes, but who will replace him?

That’s it, then.

The #MoyesOut Neanderthals have finally got what they wanted and David Moyes has been sacked by the Manchester United hierarchy.

After Sir Alex Ferguson lasted 26 years in the job, he then effectively chose Moyes as his successor who in turn only lasted 10 months.

A wiser decision needs to be made this time around to prevent a more devastating decline, but with Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp – arguably the best fit for United – already having ruled himself out, United’s net seems to be widening instead of tightening.

There are also plenty of people willing to poke fun at United’s situation, with serial comedians Paddy Power posting a price of 500/1 on Howard Webb (the Premier League referee) to become their next boss.

Amidst all of the lugubrious talk, here is my list of the top ten candidates to succeed Moyes.

10. Pep Guardiola – Bayern Munich manager – best odds 33/1

To some this might seem a ridiculous idea. Why would Pep move to United from the all-conquering Bayern? Well, it’s not as simple as that. There are rumours emanating from Germany that Guardiola is tired of the hierarchical structure within Bayern. Added to that, United have enquired about him as they begin a thorough search for the ideal candidate. All things considered, it’s difficult to see Pep moving but the United vultures are circling should anything dramatic happen in Bavaria.

9. Thomas Tuchel – Mainz manager – odds on request

Who? Yes, that’s right, Thomas Tuchel. Here are some crazy facts about Tuchel. He likes Thai cuisine, bitter chocolate and has an interest in furniture design. Those nuggets aside, he’s regarded as one of the best young European managers having worked wonders with Mainz, who operate on one of the lowest budgets in the Bundesliga. Mainz are currently on target to break into the Europa League, while Tuchel has been touted by German newspaper Bild as the next Jurgen Klopp. Some billing.

8. Carlo Ancelotti – Real Madrid manager – 33/1

Ancelotti is a man who rarely rules himself out of anything. Even with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale at his disposal in sunny Madrid, it’s unlikely he wouldn’t listen to other offers this summer. United are naturally hovering around the best managers in Europe, of which Ancelotti is one, but there are few plausible reasons for the Italian to leave Real other than to bolster his wallet.

7. Roberto Martinez – Everton manager – 33/1

Martinez is partly to blame for Moyes’ sacking. His revamped Moyes-built Everton side showed the Scot how easy, or not, it is to step into a new club and get players performing to immediate effect. The trouble United might find with Martinez, should they opt to attempt to prise him away from Goodison Park, is that the Spaniard is fiercely loyal. 33/1 is a fair price under those circumstances.

6. Mauricio Pochettino – Southampton manager – 40/1

The key to Pochettino is whether he feels he has reached the limit of his journey with Southampton. The Argentine has constructed a young and talented side with several players including Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez consequently coveted by other English clubs. Does he sense those players are on their way out? And if so, could now be a time to leave to take a shot at managing one of the biggest clubs in world football?

5. Louis van Gaal – Netherlands manager – 5/4 favourite

The bookmakers have Louis van Gaal as the favourite to succeed Moyes but, upon closer inspection, any such favouritism is misplaced. Van Gaal will become available at the end of the World Cup when his contract with the KNVB finishes, but he is far from the ideal replacement for Moyes. At 62, his appointment would be short-term and therefore counter-intuitive to United’s philosophy, while his habit of leaving clubs after brief spells of success cannot be overlooked either.

4. Marcelo Bielsa – unattached – 79/1

If United are looking for a master tactician they would not be disappointed with the wily Chilean. Bielsa has twice faced United with former club Athletic Bilbao and twice his youthful, energetic and adroit side comprehensively outplayed the Red Devils. Bielsa is a man who will command instant respect and will almost certainly sure United up in their vulnerable defensive areas. Bielsa’s age, 58, might be a sticking point, but he represents a calculated choice should he be chosen.

3. Michael Laudrup – unattached – 50/1

One name currently, and wrongly, drifting under the radar is Michael Laudrup’s. After being unceremoniously sacked by Swansea it seems eerie to think that a manager of Laudrup’s calibre is not even in contention. His teams play an attractive brand of football – something that United fans have been desperate for – and he has enough managerial talent to sustain a tenure at a club of United’s stature. The big question is whether United are prepared to take a gamble on the Dane.

2. Diego Simeone – Atletico Madrid manager – 20/1

If he doesn’t sign for United, Diego Simeone will forever be remembered as the man who was kicked by David Beckham in the 1998 World Cup as England crashed out on penalties to Argentina. In his managerial career Simeone is crafting an exciting and ominous path forwards. His Atletico Madrid team have won a Europa League title, thrashed Chelsea 4-1 in the UEFA SuperCup and have added a Copa Del Rey trophy during his time in Spain. They currently sit top of La Liga and are in the semi-finals of the Champions League having defeated rivals Barcelona in the quarter-finals. Simeone is on his way to becoming the next superstar manager, but can United tempt him away from the Vicente Calderon?

1. Laurent Blanc – PSG manager – 33/1

Blanc has built up a good deal of managerial experience at a high level, is only 48 and as a former centre-back will prioritise the rebuilding of United’s weak defence which is one of the main contributory factors to Moyes’ sacking. Blanc is also a former United player, speaks decent English and has shown he has the skills to rein in the egos at a top club – they don’t come much bigger than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s at PSG. He may not have the glittering trophy cabinet of Simeone, but he is the sensible choice to stabilise United at this time. After signing a two-year contract with PSG last summer, United should have no trouble in swooping for Blanc if they decide to pursue him. Right now, Blanc is the safest bet for a giant club on the brink of further recession.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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Man City see off disappointing Chelsea in FA Cup clash

Goals in each half from Stevan Jovetic and Samir Nasri gave Manchester City a simple win over a lacklustre Chelsea in their FA Cup fifth-round clash at the Etihad Stadium.

Jovetic had already clipped the bar with a chip before he placed an effort beyond Petr Cech after 16 minutes.

Despite the introduction of Mohamed Salah and Fernando Torres, Chelsea lacked spark throughout with the threat of Eden Hazard particularly nullified by a hungry City defence.

But it was a City substitution that finished the game off, with Nasri exchanging passes with an offside David Silva before slotting home to earn City a place in the quarter-final draw.

Before the highest-profile fifth round tie there was an impeccably-observed silence for Sir Tom Finney, the England and Preston legend, and the home side made a timid start amidst an understandably subdued atmosphere.

When City eventually settled, the opening goal was not far behind. Yaya Toure was the catalyst when his fierce shot was fumbled by Petr Cech, presenting Stevan Jovetic with a chance to score but his delicate chip grazed the crossbar.

City’s Montenegrin striker would not have to wait long for a goal though, and when Edin Dzeko found him on the right flank he finished off a quick passing move with a superbly-placed shot to Cech’s right which found the net via the post.

The goal confirmed City’s growing confidence but that was undermined by a shaky Costel Pantilimon, who ignited a goalmouth scramble with a flap at Branislav Ivanovic’s cross but, luckily for the 6ft 8in Romanian, his alert defence saw off the danger.

At the other end the hosts quickly resumed their silky attacking play and after 24 minutes another flowing attack culminated in Dzeko working Cech with a low shot from outside the box.

Chelsea’s disappointing start to the game was reflected by Eden Hazard’s anonymity, with the Belgian kept quiet by the City defence until some smart footwork drew a foul from compatriot Vincent Kompany who was booked by referee Phil Dowd.

Dowd was in action again just before the break, eventually booking David Luiz for a mis-timed challenge on Jovetic, but from the resultant advantage James Milner wasted a good opportunity when his heavy cross proved too strong for Dzeko to reach six yards from goal.

Jose Mourinho, who had been playing mind games all week with his title-hungry adversaries, reacted to a passive opening half by replacing Samuel Eto’o with new signing Mohamed Salah.

Salah replaced Eto’o up front in a move which continued Mourinho’s apparent lack of faith in Fernando Torres.

Mourinho would also have been keen to see his side establish themselves in the second half, but City continued to dominate without coaxing Cech into serious action.

Manuel Pellegrini, meanwhile, would have been angry when Jovetic proceeded to blemish what had been a diligent display with an embarrassing dive – prompting Dowd to brandish a yellow card.

It was to be Jovetic’s last action of the game, but he was replaced by the returning Samir Nasri on the hour with Mourinho giving Torres the chance to impose himself on his future plans at the expense of the quiet Ramires.

Nasri’s introduction would emerge as the crucial substitution when the Frenchman doubled City’s lead with a wonderful move after 67 minutes.

The attack began with Kompany, an imposing figure throughout, drilling a low ball to Nasri who fed David Silva before collecting the Spaniard’s square pass to calmly place the ball into a vacant net.

Television replays suggested that Silva was marginally offside when he received Nasri’s pass, but the officials went some way to redeeming themselves when correctly disallowing a Joleon Lescott tap-in from an offside position.

Chelsea could only muster a brief spell of pressure late on and duly failed to test Pantilimon in what was a microcosm for the whole match.

By then it was far too little far too late as City ran out comfortable winners to avenge their league defeat just 12 days previous and advance into the quarter-finals with ease.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Who are the best and worst Premier League referees?

One of the most asked questions in football is, “Who’d want to be a referee?” – only someone capable of ignoring volleys of abuse hurled at them from all parts of the pitch, and a good amount from the stands. And the dug-outs. And those perched in front of a TV.

Newcomers to football might wonder why these referees, who give up their Saturday afternoons to officiate in the biggest games, actually put up with all the insults.

It could be because they get a great deal of protection from the sport’s governing bodies.

For instance, five years ago the FA started a ‘Respect’ campaign which was broadened by UEFA and FIFA, but which, like so many other schemes, has done little to mollify those who shout at officials with Neanderthal-like ferocity.

UEFA and FIFA have even refrained from publishing referee statistics, i.e. the number of yellow and red cards they have awarded in a given season, to further protect them from the bitterness that they so often encounter.

However, it is also said that the mark of a good referee is to go through a game virtually unseen. So who are the best and worst referees that Premier League fans have the pleasure of watching?

The good ones are up first:

5. Martin Atkinson (26 yellows, 1 red in 2013/14)

Fans can readily expect a good level of consistency from Atkinson, which is a quality so often desired by commentators around the country. His calm demeanour and the fact that he is also one of the more experienced referees currently officiating in the Premier League means he is a safe bet for the more explosive matches.

4. Mark Clattenburg (34 yellows, 0 reds)

A couple of years ago, Clattenburg would not have made the good list. His former tendencies to be erratic and inconsistent in big matches were key pieces of evidence on that front. However, after serving an eight-month ban for breach of contract he has enjoyed a renaissance. Now seen in high-profile games and aided by stronger and more accurate officiating, Clattenburg is one of the country’s top referees.

3. Howard Webb (29 yellows, 0 reds)

Up until the 2010 World Cup final, Howard Webb might have been recognised as the best referee in the world. However, the feisty nature of that match coupled with his decision not to send Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong off for a ‘kung-fu’ challenge on Spain’s Xabi Alonso has tarnished his reputation somewhat. As a result, the FA has shared around the highest-profile matches more recently, despite Webb maintaining a level of respect from players that is rarely enjoyed. Is that because he’s a policeman?

2. Chris Foy (23 yellows, 1 red)

Steadfast and commanding, Foy finds himself high up on this list. Although recently developing a reputation for shyness in awarding penalties, Foy is a very capable referee who rarely makes glaring errors. Foy, 51, is currently in his eighteenth season as a professional referee and has worked his way up from the Football League to the top flight.

1. Andre Marriner (40 yellows, 4 reds)

Although card happy this season, Marriner has improved his officiating and is now considered to be one of the top referees in the FIFA family. The pinnacle of his career to date was the 2013 FA Cup final, where he became one of the few referees to show a red card in the final, after dismissing Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta for a reckless lunge. That he was chosen to officiate that match is evidence of the quality of his refereeing and could be in with a chance of travelling to Brazil next summer.

Now the bad…

5. Anthony Taylor (32 yellows, 2 reds)

One of the youngest referees in the Premier League, Taylor visibly lacks the experience required in big games. Unfortunately for him, he fails to assert his authority in matches, and players are often seen howling at his decisions. That he is rarely picked for games involving the top-flight’s largest teams suggests the FA lack confidence in him at this stage of his career.

4. Mike Dean (34 yellows, 2 reds)

Guilty of awarding soft penalties and often too card happy, Dean is also notorious for his inability to let games flow and is perhaps fond of the sound of his whistle. Despite his shortcomings, Dean is an experienced official and regularly oversees derby matches and other high-profile fixtures.

3. Phil Dowd (43 yellows, 0 reds)

In the past, Dowd was a figure of fun for his bulging waistline, but must attract praise for lifestyle changes that have helped him lose weight. Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the leading critics of his fitness, once remarking that Dowd was often found too far behind play to make key decisions. Dowd’s style also irritates, especially his snarling approach to on-field conversations and a whistle-happy tendency.

2. Jonathan Moss (33 yellows, 2 reds)

Moss, much like Taylor, has a lack of experience at the top level and consequently is prone to making decisions which are often inconsistent. He has twice been the specific subject of criticism on Match of the Day this season, and was guilty of a nightmare display in Crystal Palace’s trip to Old Trafford where several highly contentious decisions went against the Eagles – notably the dismissal of Kagisho Dikgacoi after Ashley Young’s dive.

1. Michael Oliver (44 yellows, 1 red)

To coin a popular phrase, Oliver is a ‘bottler’. A measure of a referee is their ability to withstand the heated atmosphere and pressured environment of top-flight football and, on many occasions, Oliver has quivered in the face of such requirements. He is, nevertheless, highly-regarded by the FA and has overseen his fair share of big matches. In mitigation, he is very young and will only improve with more experience, but has perhaps been promoted too soon into his career – and that is sorely evident.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

F1’s loss is Mark Webber’s gain

When drivers retire from Formula One, their powers are usually on the wane. This driver, though, timed his escape from an increasingly shackling sport to perfection.

For Mark Webber, F1 had long lost its purity and its ability to enable drivers to push to the limit of their car’s capabilities before his decision to switch to endurance racing with Porsche for 2014.

He had become increasingly frustrated after Pirelli moved to F1 to manufacture the sport’s tyres in 2011. Under a brief from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to encourage overtaking and more pit stops, Pirelli built tyres which degraded quickly – much to the abhorrence of the Australian.

Such a change forced drivers to nurse the cars lap-by-lap on race day, and Webber was among the fiercest critics of the new approach.

So much so that he once claimed qualifying to be the highlight of a race weekend – the only time when he could extract maximum pace from his car without fear of his tyres ‘falling off the cliff’.

The introduction of Pirelli, coupled with Red Bull’s mastery of the exhaust-blown diffuser in the same season made for a very disgruntled Aussie.

It seemed the tide would not turn, especially when his young team-mate Sebastian Vettel would later perfect the counter-intuitive use of the exhaust-blowing to romp to his second world title that year.

The German’s success, coming a year after Webber’s flirtation with his own world championship triumph, was particularly galling but he never relented in his persistent chase of Vettel, despite being ultimately powerless in seeing his greatest rival record his third and fourth titles in the following two campaigns.

When Webber moved to the Austrian-owned team in 2007, he had already notched his maiden podium for Williams in 2005 and scored two points for perennial backmarkers Minardi in his debut Grand Prix in Melbourne in 2002.

From the outset of his F1 career it was clear that Webber’s greatest strength was qualifying and he had already made the front row for Jaguar and Williams before taking his maiden pole position for Red Bull in 2009 at the German GP.

In an outstanding show of pace, Webber negated a drive-through penalty – given to him for a first-lap brush with Rubens Barrichello – to claim his maiden F1 win. The euphoric celebration over his in-car radio underlined just how much it meant to him.

The subsequent season was a mixture of highs and lows, and was also the beginning of his intense rivalry with Vettel.

By mid-season Webber had delivered commanding wins in Barcelona and Monte Carlo, but then came the British GP at Silverstone.

Red Bull had manufactured a new-spec front wing and fixed it to Webber’s car but, after Vettel damaged his old-spec wing in qualifying, the team took the decision to switch it to Vettel’s car instead.

The difference between having and not having the wing was only 0.1 seconds per lap, but it was the principle of the move that upset Webber the most. He was incensed by what he saw as the team’s favouritism towards Vettel.

Vettel duly took pole but Webber passed him at the start of the race and took a crushing win, delivering his infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message over the radio on the cooldown lap.

Another win in Hungary set Webber’s title charge up nicely and with three races left he was ideally placed.

But, in a wet inaugural Korean GP, disaster struck when he spun on a sodden piece of astro-turf, clattered the inside wall and was then hit by Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes.

With Vettel also retiring, Fernando Alonso took a vital win and with it the championship lead from Webber.

With five drivers going into the last race in Abu Dhabi with a chance of claiming the title, Red Bull firmly nailed their colours to the mast by deploying Webber, who had got ahead of Alonso, as a decoy.

The genius of the idea brought them into the pits at the same time, with Ferrari covering Webber’s move as Alonso’s main challenger. The pair rejoined in heavy traffic and, with overtaking seemingly impossible, Vettel took the win and the title.

Webber had been used, and he was livid.

So began his misery. The next season saw him win just one race in a campaign dominated by his team-mate, while reliability issues in 2012 thwarted his title challenge, although he registered impressive wins at Monaco and Silverstone for the second time in his career.

This season has been equally frustrating, Webber enduring further difficulties with the Pirellis and yet more reliability gremlins, but he managed to claim three pole positions before the end of the season to prove his pace over one lap still existed.

The outpouring of love and fondness for Webber from his colleagues, notably Alonso – the pair began their F1 careers together at Minardi – was a reminder of his popularity, which is reflected in his outspoken view on the sport.

Some of the most famous quotes in F1 are attributed to the Australian, and they are partly a reason for his status as a fan’s favourite.

On his disgruntlement at the burgeoning use of “Mickey Mouse” street tracks like Valencia, Webber took the chance to say the Spanish circuit was akin to “a Tesco car park”.

Valencia, of course, would provide excitement of an unwanted kind in 2010 when he somersaulted into the air after colliding with Heikki Kovalainen on the back straight.

That he landed safely and escaped unhurt was a minor miracle but he bounced back to win the next race at Silverstone, despite the front-wing controversy.

Other famous quotes include his description of Romain Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” after the Lotus driver shunted into him at the start of the 2012 Japanese GP, and earlier this year in an interview on Top Gear, Webber was asked by Jeremy Clarkson if he had ever been tempted to punch arch-rival Vettel.

His reply was typically memorable: “My Dad always said you shouldn’t hit boys, mate.”

Of course, the relationship between the two had been tempestuous ever since the Malaysian GP.

A pre-race agreement, coded ‘multi-21’, was designed to protect whichever Red Bull driver held the lead after the first pit-stop.

That honour fell to Webber and, safe in the knowledge that Vettel wouldn’t challenge him, he dialled his engine down to preserve his car in the heat and humidity of Sepang.

Vettel began to close in on him though, and defied desperate team orders over the radio to pass the Australian for what would prove to be the first of his thirteen victories this season.

Webber was enraged, but had further cause for irritation when Vettel said he would do the same again during a press conference at the next race in China.

Their rivalry truly ignited in 2010 when Vettel veered across Webber’s path in the Turkish GP, while the pair had earlier been involved in a collision in 2007 when Vettel smashed into Webber at Fuji, depriving them both of podium positions in horribly wet conditions.

The incident provoked more memorable remarks from the New South Wales- born veteran who, in reference to Vettel’s inexperience, stated that, “It’s kids isn’t it…you do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

Webber will be remembered not only for his straight-talking ways, but his infamous lack of luck and recent poor getaways off the line.

Despite those setbacks, Webber has a glittering set of statistics to look back on his time in the sport ahead of his new career with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

He triumphed with nine victories, claimed 42 podiums – the last coming in his final race in Brazil – and secured 13 pole positions in his 215-race career, amassing 1047.5 points and setting 19 fastest laps.

Webber is not the type to fuss about such things, but at the time of his exit from F1 he was placed in the top twenty drivers of all time. “Not bad for a number two driver.”

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

2013 Vuelta a Espana preview – Nibali bids for rare Giro/Vuelta double

Vincenzo Nibali will be riding for an historic double when the Vuelta a Espana starts at Vilanova de Arousa tomorrow.

The Italian, 28, won his home Grand Tour, the Giro d-Italia, in convincing style earlier this season and is the bookmaker’s favourite to take his second career Vuelta win after his 2010 success.

A win in the General Classification would propel the Astana rider into cycling folklore as he would become only the fourth man in history to have won the Giro and the Vuelta in the same season.

Standing in his way though, is a terrifying parcours. Over half the stages (eleven) in the 2013 Vuelta will be summit finishes, while 13 of the 21 stages are classified as mountainous.

The Vuelta may be the youngest Grand Tour, but it is without doubt the most brutal because of the fierce heat experienced in late August, with temperatures rising to 40C on occasions.

If the riders thought the 2013 Giro was tough enough with sharp gradients peaking at close to 20% on some stages, the 2013 Vuelta’s queen stage is even more demanding.

Step forward the Alto de l’Angliru, a fearsome climb on the penultimate stage that kicks up to around 23% in the closing kilometres.

L’Angliru’s reputation proceeds itself. Some have called it ‘barbaric’, others have simply had their races wrecked by it.

If you are sitting here now and wondering what it is like to ride up it, search for a clip on YouTube of the stage ascending to its summit in the 2011 Vuelta. The severity of the steepness is mindblowing.

In the build-up to the Vuelta, Nibali has suggested that l’Angliru could be the defining climb of the race. It would, however, be surprising if this comes into fruition.

With 12 other mountainous stages sandwiching a time-trial on stage 11, fans can expect the race leader, whoever that may be, to arrive at the foot of l’Angliru with a healthy lead – as seen in the Tour de France this year which featured a notably hilly parcours.

Big time gaps are expected then, but for the GC contenders winning the final Grand Tour of 2013 will be a monumental battle.

With so many mountains to navigate, attacks will be frequent as the riders fight for any advantage they can.

Nibali’s greatest rival for the win seems to be Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who so agonisingly missed out on Tour de France contention after the combination of a puncture, crosswinds and an attack by Team Belkin off the front put paid to his chances.

He eased off for the remainder of the race as a result and is expected to be fresh ahead of an assault on his home Grand Tour.

His compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez, by contrast, started poorly in the Tour but rode himself into good form and an eventual podium place was no less than he deserved.

If he has recovered from the Tour and built upon that form he will be a significant threat to Nibali and Valverde. Currently rated as the world’s best rider, his combative style is backed up by a dazzling burst of acceleration on the toughest climbs.

Another Spaniard, Sami Sanchez, will be making a first appearance in his home race since 2009, when he finished second.

The popular rider, whose Euskaltel-Euskadi team recently announced failure in their bid to save the team from folding, has finished on the Vuelta podium twice, with his other podium finish coming after claiming third in 2007.

The 2008 Olympic road race gold medallist will be looking to give his team the perfect send-off with an emotional win in their home race after he skipped the Tour to concentrate on elevating his level to coincide with a tilt at the Vuelta.

Other GC contenders of note include Team Sky’s Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran.

Henao has been handed the team leadership role, but if he cracks along the way Uran, who finished a tremendous second to Nibali in the Giro, will assume control.

As far as British interest in the Vuelta goes, there is not much to get excited over – there are just two Brits in the race.

Andrew Fenn, who rides for Mark Cavendish’s Omega Pharma – Quick Step team, is an exciting all-round cyclist, or rouleur, and at 23 will be riding his maiden Grand Tour.

The other is Sky’s Luke Rowe, who will also be participating in his first Grand Tour.

Rowe, who won a stage of the Tour of Britain last year, is regarded as a sprinter who can also aim for one-day classic races, and could later convert himself into a GC contender.

With many of the riders in this race looking to use the Vuelta as a springboard onto the subsequent World Championships, it is possible that a good proportion of them might drop out.

Yet, with the parcours in Tuscany also deemed hilly, a few of the GC contenders for the Vuelta may abandon to focus on the rainbow jersey if they have lost too much time.

Mountains, though, are what this year’s Vuelta is all about. The route could obliterate the peloton early on stages which traverse the Pyrenees and the infamously mountainous north of Spain. The climb up the l’Angliru is just the crowning glory on what promises to be a spectacular race.

All the signs point to a Nibali win when the riders roll into Madrid on the final stage three weeks from now, and with his Astana team looking immensely strong with quality riders such as Janez Brajkovic, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert to work for him, it will take a rider possessing extraordinary form to beat him.

My 2013/14 Premier League predictions

Straight away, I’m going to jinx the upcoming Premier League season – I think it’s going to be a cracker.

It’s certainly looking as if it’s going to be the hardest Premier League season to call for a while, and who wouldn’t be up for some unpredictability after Manchester United cantered to the title last time out?

Of course there are the usual rivalries to look forward to, and some new ones too as broadcasting newcomers BT Sport look to sink the all-conquering Sky Sports in the biggest ever battle of its kind.

There is also the addition of goal-line technology to muse over. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no major goal-line incidents to speak of for the Hawk-Eye system to judge – but that’s show business for you.

Anyway, let’s get started with the serious business. Counting down from 20th place to 1st, here’s my version of what the Premier League table will look like come Sunday 11th May next year.

20. Hull City Tigers (2012/13: Promoted, 2nd in Championship)

Has there ever been a team so hotly-tipped to go down as Hull City? (or Hull City Tigers as they have imaginatively been renamed).

At the managerial helm is Steve Bruce, perennial signer of has-been big-name players. Bruce has lived up to his reputation in the transfer market, signing the under-achieving Tom Huddlestone and Danny Graham, who will need to shoulder the burden of scoring consistently for his new side to give them a chance of staying up.

The acquisition of former Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor is a good bit of business though, and Graham might have an exciting strike partner in the talented Yannick Sagbo. The backbone of the team also has a distinct Man United youth squad look to it, as so many of Bruce’s teams have done in the past.

Criticisms of Bruce’s managerial aptitude aside, Hull have a solid defence which hardly conceded in last season’s Championship, but I expect the step up in class to prove too tough for them on their return to the top flight.

19. Crystal Palace (2012/13: Promoted, Championship play-off winners)

Nearly every football fan in the country rejoiced when Crystal Palace beat Watford 1-0 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley in May. Not because they’re all Eagles fans, but because Ian Holloway would be a regular fixture on Match of the Day once more.

The colourful Bristolian may have lost Wilfried Zaha to Man United this summer but he has bought well to replace him. Jose Campana, just 20, signed from Sevilla for €2m while Marouane Chamakh has also penned a one-year deal.

Holloway’s excellent man-management and motivational skills should get the ailing Chamakh into better goalscoring form than in recent seasons while the exciting talent of Jonathan Williams will provide him with the creativity needed at Premier League level.

Palace, like Hull, proved tough to score against last season but being just as frugal in the Premier League will be much more difficult and consequently relegation looms large for them this season.

18. Sunderland (2012/13: Premier League, 17th)

Yes, you heard it here first. Sunderland to be relegated. Why? Because despite the Paulo di Canio effect the Black Cats very nearly faced the drop last season.

The trouble for Sunderland fans is that di Canio has made a whole host of distinctly average signings in the summer. They have been the Premier League’s most active club, signing ten players in all, but none of them carry formidable reputations and Mackem fans will be wondering if it’s going to be enough for them to stay up this season.

Does di Canio know his best team? And will the raft of new players destabilise the club rather than strengthen it? Time will tell, but I feel it could have a negative impact as di Canio sorts out his best line-up, tactics and alternatives.

That said, the signing of Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus is a good one and, if he can link up well with Steven Fletcher and fellow newcomer Jozy Altidore, Sunderland might just be OK.

Questions still remain over their defence though, and I expect this to be where Sunderland come unstuck this season. Few recognised reinforcements for an aged defence that conceded 1.5 goals on average per game last season is an ominous sign.

17. Fulham (2012/13: Premier League, 12th)

Joining Sunderland in a fight to stay in the top flight are Fulham. Martin Jol’s side finished an unrepresentative 12th last season, jumping four places after a 3-0 defeat of Swansea on the final day.

Jol knew that signings needed to be made and perhaps the most impressive of those is centre-back Fernando Amorebieta. Signed on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao, the Venezuelan is powerful in the tackle, while his skill on the ball exudes a calming influence on those around him. He will form a strong partnership with Brede Hangeland in central defence.

Fulham still have an older squad than most, which is not necessarily a problem, but a lack of depth beyond those experienced players is certainly evident. Dimitar Berbatov has a new strike partner in Darren Bent, signed on loan from Aston Villa today, while Maarten Stekelenburg has replaced Mark Schwarzer between the posts.

I doubt Fulham will be relegated, but should they suffer a spate of injuries they will be struggling.

16. Cardiff City(2012/13: Promoted as Championship winners)

Of all the promoted sides, Cardiff look best placed to upset a few of the more established Premier League sides this season.

They already had Premier League experience in Craig Bellamy and Fraizer Campbell and the addition of Steven Caulker to bolster their defence has bucked the trend of their fellow promotees.

Having also signed Chile international Gary Medel from Sevilla, Malky Mackay’s side look in decent shape and should avoid the drop.

15. Stoke City (2012/13: Premier League, 13th)

Not many teams have signed a Barcelona player this summer, but Stoke City have. They welcome Marc Muniesa, a 21-year-old centre-back, to the Britannia this season.

He joins Dutch left-back Erik Pieters in the Potters squad as new manager Mark Hughes looks to improve upon 13th last season.

That placing flattered Stoke somewhat, particularly because they had been in relegation peril towards the end of the season, but they have a strong enough squad to survive the drop again this time round.

14. Aston Villa (2012/13: Premier League, 15th)

Villa have done well this summer to tie star striker Christian Benteke down on a new contract. Up top last season Villa looked as dangerous as any of the top sides in the division as Benteke was partnered by Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor, but their defence remains shaky.

Awash with youngsters, it was very nearly Villa’s undoing as they conceded 69 goals with the biggest slump in form coming in an 8-0 drubbing away to Chelsea.

Still, Villa’s forward line should get Paul Lambert’s men over the line and they can continue to build their side after the World Cup in Brazil in what is undoubtedly a long-term project for the Midlanders.

13. Southampton (2012/13: Premier League, 14th)

Mauricio Pochettino has been fairly inactive in the transfer market, but his two signings to date have been big ones.

Southampton have splashed the cash on Victor Wanyama (£12m) and Dejan Lovren (£8.5m), fees which are widely held to be well above what each player is worth.

£12m for Wanyama looks particularly expensive considering Wilfried Bony, Mesut Özil and Shinji Kagawa also commanded £12m fees, but Saints have nonetheless made a statement in signing the Kenya international.

Their form last season following Pochettino’s move was good, but a poor finish to the season belied a decent middle stint where Manchester City were among their scalps. Could be fighting for a top ten finish.

12. West Ham (2012/13: Premier League, 10th)

Sam Allardyce is similar to Steve Bruce in that he often signs players with a big reputation, and he has lived up to that billing by signing Liverpool pair Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing for a combined £21m.

The two players should, in theory at least, link up well with Downing’s crosses seen as the perfect supply for Carroll to destroy teams with his mastery of aerial duels.

With a solid defence and a diligent midfield, West Ham will be well clear of the relegation scrap and should be aiming for a top ten finish, which may just be beyond them given the quality of the teams around them.

11. Newcastle United (2012/13: Premier League, 16th)

A new season and a new start for Alan Pardew after the lucklustre display his side turned in last season.

Pardew has bought sparingly this summer, adding Loïc Remy on loan, and he will hope that the French contingent signed in January will be enough to see his side avoid the doldrums of their last campaign.

Newcastle still need to make a few additions to their squad to be on the safe side, but they have a good enough squad to contend for a top ten place.

10. Norwich City (2012/13: Premier League, 11th)

There are few teams in this division with a pair of strikers of the quality of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper.

That Chris Hughton managed to secure their signatures for a comparatively small fee, suggests that Norwich have good reason to be chipper ahead of the upcoming campaign.

Van Wolfswinkel comes to Carrow Road with big promise and has a natural goalscoring ability which should alleviate the difficulties in front of goal that many Canaries fans had lamented last season.

Hooper has proven his prowess at Celtic and will be looking to kick on at a higher level with the carrot of a call-up to the England squad in World Cup year dangling in front of him.

Norwich can be defensively unsteady at times, and that is where their weakness lies. However, the exciting partnership up top and an underrated midfield including Robert Snodgrass and Wes Hoolahan will be good for a top ten spot.

9. West Brom (2012/13: Premier League, 8th)

The Baggies have prepared for the new season by signing experienced players of the calibre of Nicolas Anelka and Diego Lugano.

Yet, as is well known, both Anelka and Lugano are mercurial – Anelka especially so. Whether he will be consistently putting in 100% at the Hawthorns remains to be seen. If manager Steve Clarke sees him as a replacement for Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku, he could be sorely disappointed.

Lugano, meanwhile, looked past his best at the recent Confederations Cup for Uruguay and, in my opinion at least, represents more of a liability than a reliability.

Despite the relative lack of signings, West Brom should be competitive. An energetic and incisive midfield is their strength and if they can convince Peter Odemwinghie to stay they can aim for a top ten finish.

8. Everton (2012/13: Premier League, 6th)

Everton enter into the new season with a new manager for the first time in over a decade following the departure of David Moyes to Manchester United.

Incoming boss Roberto Martinez is certainly a respected manager and he will look to build upon the watchable style of play that Moyes developed during his tenure.

Key to their success will be the retention of Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, with the club so far resisting overtures for both men from Manchester United.

New loan signing Gerard Deulofeu comes in from Barcelona to provide strength to the Toffees forward line, which is also bolstered by Arouna Kone, who followed Martinez from Wigan in a permanent deal.

The Goodison Park faithful will have to be patient with the new regime – a European place (fifth) might be out of their reach.

7. Swansea City (2012/13: Premier League, 9th)

Swansea’s season has already started with qualification for the Europa League, and they look well placed to improve on an impressive ninth place finish from last season.

New signing Wilfried Bony looks strong and has linked up well with goalscoring sensation Michu so far. The Ivorian’s presence allows the Spaniard to drift into his favoured position just off the first striker, so Swansea may well benefit from that this season.

Swans manager Michael Laudrup has raided Real Betis for Spanish duo Alejandro Pozuelo and Jose Canas, with Pozuelo looking a very promising player in the playmaker role.

Fans at the Liberty Stadium will be hopeful of a good Premier League assault and their team could well deliver a top six place if one of the top six teams falters.

6. Tottenham Hotspur (2012/13: Premier League, 5th)

The crucial question at White Hart Lane this summer is whether prize asset Gareth Bale is going to leave the club.

Real Madrid have reportedly had a world-record bid of £87m turned down, and their interest has since cooled.

Bale has remained silent – some say this means he wants to leave – but chairman Daniel Levy is intent on keeping his star player.

If Bale were to leave, Spurs will rely heavily on £26m striker Roberto Soldado to score goals after Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe endured difficult seasons.

Paulinho, a £17m acquisition from Corinthians, looks a very good addition to the squad but the loss of Bale is expected to take its toll and I think Spurs will miss out on Europe – unless they can win a domestic cup.

5. Liverpool (2012/13: Premier League, 7th)

Liverpool flattered to deceive at times last season. They finished with 71 goals – the fourth highest in the division – but they were inconsistent and eventually paid the price when they missed out on European competition altogether.

They have also resisted Luis Suarez’s attempts to leave the club, with Arsenal having had two bids rejected, and have got their business done early, signing four players fairly cheaply.

Simon Mignolet will be first choice in goal after Pepe Reina left the club (on loan) to link up with former Reds boss Rafael Benitez at Napoli, while the addition of Spanish duo Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto will provide Daniel Sturridge with assistance should Suarez leave.

Philippe Coutinho is being tipped for a superb season alongside Steven Gerrard in midfield, and Reds boss Brendan Rodgers will be hopeful – rightly so – of a Europa League place at least.

4. Arsenal (2012/13: Premier League, 4th)

Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of activity in the transfer market – but it has not been for want of trying.

The Gunners have twice failed in attempts to sign Luis Suarez and their only signing so far this summer has been French youngster Yaya Sanogo.

A fit again Jack Wilshere will be crucial to Arsene Wenger’s plans to launch an assault on a Champions League automatic qualifying spot, but with the calibre of teams ahead of them I feel fourth place is as good as Arsenal will get – for now.

3. Manchester United (2012/13: Premier League, champions)

Like Arsenal, United have added one player to their squad this summer – young Uruguay full-back Guillermo Varela. Interest in midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas has not resulted in a signing, while a bid for Leighton Baines has also been rejected.

Rumours are now abound that new manager David Moyes is looking to bring in playmaker Mesut Özil, and with time fast running out United fans are beginning to think a marquee signing may never materialise for the Glaswegian.

If it doesn’t chances will fall to exciting youngsters such as Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard, while Nick Powell will be involved once he recovers from a pre-season hamstring injury.

Wilfried Zaha, who was signed in January, has also looked sharp in pre-season and prolific young Chilean striker Angelo Henriquez scored midweek for his country.

Wayne Rooney has been tipped for a move to Chelsea, but the club have rejected two bids and expect him to stay.

Despite the Rooney saga, the future looks bright for United, but they are in a transitional phase after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and an automatic Champions League spot will be Moyes’ realistic end product.

2. Manchester City (2012/13: Premier League, 2nd)

New manager Manuel Pellegrini erased memories of last season by doing his business in rapid fashion early in the summer.

His £90m outlay on Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas has strengthened City greatly, and they will be extremely difficult to beat as a result.

City enjoyed the best defensive record in the league last season, conceding just 34 goals. They scored a measly 66 though – and Pellegrini has addressed that problem emphatically.

I think City will just be pipped to the title but it will be a close battle with the usual title suspects.

1. Chelsea (2012/13: Premier League, 3rd)

Jose Mourinho has picked a good time to return to Chelsea.

They have the squad to mount a serious challenge in Europe, let alone domestically.

Romelu Lukaku returns to the club following a successful loan spell at West Brom and he is favourite to beat Fernando Torres to a regular starting spot up top.

Kevin de Bruyne also looks a very good prospect, as does new signing Andre Schürrle, while another young talent – midfielder Marco van Ginkel – has been promised games under the terms of his signature.

Should Chelsea manage to keep David Luiz, they have a defensive backbone to a team that is capable of delivering the title and I fully expect them to be lifting the Premier League trophy next May.

Can Manchester United be regarded as a ‘big club’ any more?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.

But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.

Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.

Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.

Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.

Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.

The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.

More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.

Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.

Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.

United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.

Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.

Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.

Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.

Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.

Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.

It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.

Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.

Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.

If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.

The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.

United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.

Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.

So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.

In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.

For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.